WASHINGTON – The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has selected Japan and Australia to provide heavy airframe and engine maintenance in the Pacific, the Joint Program Office announced Wednesday.
Japan and Australia will be responsible for heavy airframe maintenance for the northern and southern Pacific regions. Australia will be the center of heavy engine maintenance starting in 2018; Japan will follow as an engine maintainer three to five years later.
"Heavy" maintenance covers work involving changes or repair to the body of the aircraft, such as a replacement of a bulkhead or the fixing of a wing.
Australia is the only full Pacific partner in the F-35 program, with a planned buy of 100 F-35 models. Japan and South Korea are foreign military sales customers on the jet, with plans to buy 42 and 40 fighters, respectively.
Japan has also agreed to develop a final assembly and check-out (FACO) facility, which Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the F-35 program head, said is still being stood up.
He also noted that, unlike similar facilities in Italy and Texas, the Japanese FACO is being built vertically rather than spread across a large footprint, a result of Japan's limited land to build on.
"The fact that Japan is investing their own money in building a FACO, and that FACO, with less investment than standing up something from the very beginning, could be transitioned into a maintenance capability, is a big factor, because for the enterprise that's a great value," Bogdan said. "Japan invests its own money in building a facility that with minimal investment on their part could be turned into a regional capability. So it was a factor in looking at what was best value."
The Pacific announcement came a week after Bogdan made public the European sustainment partners.
Italy's existing FACO will provide heavy airframe maintenance for Europe, with the UK potentially gaining extra business in the future if Italy cannot handle the workload. Turkey, meanwhile, will be the first of three European heavy engine maintenance facilities to come online, to be followed by Norway and the Netherlands.
While Italy will be the prime airframe maintainer for all of Europe, the Pentagon decided to go with two airframe maintainers in the Pacific due to the massive distances involved. Bogdan said the distance "makes it uneconomical and, from a movement of airplanes standpoint, difficult to take airplanes from the northern Pacific getting ready to go into depot and having to fly them 7,000 miles."
"So from that perspective, geography played a fairly big role," he added.
Estimates for how much work each facility will do are still being worked up, but the Joint Program Office believes the Italian facility will see 45-50 inductions of airframes for some form of heavy work between 2018 and 2022. Based on estimates, that would represent 150,000 hours of work, with a dollar value in the in the $30-$35 million range.
Bogdan has stressed that this is only the first wave of sustainment opportunities being offered to international partners and customers. He unveiled the sustainment strategy in an exclusive June interview with Defense News.
Engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney congratulated Japan and Australia in a statement and said the company looks forward to working with both nations to "establish affordable, world-class F135 [engine] depot capability in the Asia Pacific region." ■